Two very fine British movies contrasting two very different British eras: God Save the Queen versus The Angry Young Men. Look Back in Nostalgia versus Look Back in Anger. There will always be an England versus Yes but not the one you favor. So, we have this drama: The immediate socially conservative reclamas of British higher class life in the late 1940s of the Post War most dire being superseded by the vocally combative dramas of lower class life in the late 1960s of Her Majesty’s Lost Empire.
The Paradine Case (1947) is on the surface a suspenseful post war cautionary courtroom drama–the imposing London courthouse still bears external blitzed damage from German bombs–about a talented and happily and classily married and up-and-coming young middle-aged barrister, Anthony Keane (Gregory Peck), who very nearly disastrously falls in love with, and barely survives, a young intriguing woman he is defending against charges she murdered her newlywed husband, an elderly, immensely wealthy, blind British nobleman; she, this Maddalena (what an inspired name, eh?) Anna Paradine (Alida Valli), a rags-to-riches, opportunistic, cunning heroine, came not from the Black Lagoon but from somewhere in Europe beyond Calais–her accent suggests a fair distance eastwards (that great region beyond Great Britain perhaps extending in Hitchcock’s snobbish view to practically the whole unworthy, disdained world save America [redeemed for him in WW2] and from where originate many of his villains who harm the UK and/or his British characters [a bigotry of the Master’s which despite his nonpareil misdirection offers perhaps unintended, too-early and hence spoiling clues to us, his audience, about the identities of many of his villains, i.e., who is who and what is what in some of his seminal suspense classics: see The Lady Vanishes, The Man Who Knew Too Much (second version), Foreign Correspondent, etc.]). That Keane is smitten and helplessly foolish is not only the too-familiar story–didn’t the latest to surface in Vanity Fair in the gadzillions of such sad sagas have something to do with a prominent politician?–but is of course one nonetheless done exceptionally well if instinctively by a Hitchcock who really isn’t here, it seems to me, intensely focussed on such endless foibles but on something far more interesting to him and, no doubt, to us, if more neutrally and historically curiously in our case: preservation of classic upper class England.
It’s a loving preservation with no reservation. It’s also wearing a disguise. The Paradine Case was the last film Hitchcock did under contract to David O. Selznick who apparently hated Ben Hecht’s original screenplay and rewrote it himself. The redone script serves well enough for the traditional love-potion drama and Hitchcock more than earned his pay, based no doubt on how well he served his own master, Selznick, a fierce businessman whose priority had to have been, “Give ’em what they want!” But Hitchcock is so good that he does Selznick’s no-nonsense bidding wonderfully yet then goes on to tell the larger, now wistful, story of the conservation of Past Grandeur. In black-and-white movie atmospheric marvelousness equal to splendid styles among great painters–oh, those shadowy grand cinematic scenes staged by Hitchcock amidst the splendor of Imperial British wealth and privilege!–we see caught unforgettably and forever the world of Savile Row suits, the Savoy, formal dinners, elegant women, brandy-and-cigars, manses decorated in perfect taste, top hats and big black umbrellas, rainy London evening streets viewed through limousine windows, elegantly simple impeccable olden courtrooms where the wigged and robed shrewd and acute professionals/Lords-and-Sirs–gentlemen all–proceed crisply and articulately through the evidence in accordance with timeless protocols. It is the only world we see. There are terrible people there–the Judge Lord Thomas Horfield (Charles Laughton [the perfect casting]) is thoroughly unlikable because he is an Awful, Snobbish, Perverted Person–but that is simply, you think under Hitchcock’s spell, to be expected, indeed even defining. You give it little pause. And then–the centerpiece of Hitchcock’s Real Story of Nostalgia, a nostalgia intensified by the Narrow Escape of WW2–is a magnificent sequence in the middle of the movie in which Keane journeys from London by train (Hitchcock loves train stations and trains and in these scenes he is at his best, as always) and then, beautifully symbolically, traveling further by buggy, to Hilldane Hall Out There in Pastoral Cumberland. There, Keane enters the grand old but seemingly timeless English Country Estate, the Great House, again in a black-and-white splendor of shadowy stairs (stairs, but of course!) and huge bedrooms safe and secure on upper floors and magnificent wood-panelled sitting rooms and gleaming and polished tables; but the blind nobleman (you must wear a hard hat here for fear of falling symbols) is dead, poisoned–might he have been a bored Lord Ha-Ha-Halifaxed half-assed country gentry skittish British prewar Appeaser?–the house is being shuttered and prepared to be “let” and there is, therefore, the sense of An End To All That. But Hitchcock, able to bear reading the emblazoned handwriting on the wall, got there just in time with his camera crew together with Peck, Louis Jordan, and a few bit-part actors to save it for posterity in a beautiful, haunting cinematic homage. A masterpiece, pure and simple.
If there is anything which Hitchcock makes topical for his Hidden Big Theme in fashioning yet again the shopworn love-potion story, it is, to repeat, that Barrister Keane, exemplar of the world Hitchcock enshrines, is seduced by a beautiful Witch from the East, an evil woman who probably, given her accented English, is a Slavic Witch (did she escape Vlad?) though Hitchcock leaves absolute confirmation of her POB unspoken (something I’m sure tunnel-vision marketer and audience-grubbing Selznick would approve, assuming he even noticed that the subtle Hitchcock had abstained from so speaking)–and very nearly loses his own Great War before regaining his practical, empiricist British common sense just enough to take advantage of some timely luck (including a wise and understanding wife of some class [just the right word here]) and barely survive in reputation and standing; that is, probably survive. So: writ larger, it reminds of Great Britain Herself in those years–a fearful half decade–when the Courthouse had been bombed. (Again, make sure you are wearing your hard hat.)
In apposition, Get Carter is a superb, suspenseful, violent gangster movie, and, like The Paradine Case, much more than that, and has consistently been ranked by British movie critics as one of the best British movies ever filmed. I agree wholeheartedly. Michael Caine plays the lead and John Osborne, one of the leading Angry Young Men of the British art world of the time, and author of the stage play, Look Back in Anger, has a starring role as a thoroughly unlikeable lowlife gangster and crook.
Beyond the movie, other angry young men included Kingsley Amis, J.G. Ballard and the great dark angel of them all, the painter Francis Bacon. They were angry about attempts like Hitchcock’s to ignore the burnt-out Great Britain in the post war years which saw the decline and fall of the Empire; they hadn’t the quieter, more evenhanded long view of the cynical-but-idealistic Graham Greene and they were tired of upper-society-dominated art and of such discourse in the new, bitter times in Great Britain and the traditions therein implausibly (to them) revered still in the cultural mainstream. Bacon defined life as an experience of being born, having sex, and dying as an animalistic and dangerous creature; and he was known for S&M erotic frolic as he painted unforgettable paintings of Mr. Hyde at his most monstrous in the aftermath of the Death Camps and associated horrors. The dreadfulness of the century, said these talented artists–writers, painters, moviemakers, et al.–could not be simply acknowledged and then have life go on as usual. Life was no longer “usual.” Romantic notions of humankind no longer held for them. Lower-class life at its most dismal was often their art-world. Unlike the Lost Generation or the Beat Generation, The Angry Young Men were exactly as they were known: angrily disillusioned. We’ve all seen Bacon’s paintings and read Amis (e.g., Lucky Jim) and Osborne and the later Ballard.
I think Get Carter is one of the most emblematic pieces of art of their period and movement. Carter, a gangster, leaves London to return to the seedy, down-and-out Newcastle. Newcastle becomes the whole world. Everyone, it almost seems, is a gangster, pornographer, petty crook, hustler or, at minimum, a most animalistic person. No one is likable. Carter enjoys killing. Caine, I think, steals the killer’s grimace from Humphrey Bogart, and if you are going to steal, it’s an inspired theft. Rather than English Country gentry life, the abiding scene in Get Carter is of the descending gray streets of Newcastle. Carter returns to his birth city to kill those he is convinced murdered his brother or had a hand in it. But in this suspenseful, gripping but disillusioned film, there seems little honor among thieves and a bitter take on two famous statements: Those who live by the sword shall die by the sword; and Keep up your bright swords, for the dew shall rust them. Carter doesn’t, and he pays for it after sadistically killing several implicated in his brother’s death. The movie opens with pornography on display and turns on pornographic abuse of Carter’s niece (or, perhaps, his own daughter…it’s not quite clear, at least to my ears). But all in this violent film is angry disillusionment and the portrayal of humankind as the killer. At the beginning, there is a train ride from London to Newcastle that in its way is as important as trains are to Hitchcock. Here, the train bearing Carter to his homicidal vengeance passes through several tunnels at the end of each of which is a light. That light metaphorically displays us in a state of natural savagery.
Get Carter is wonderfully made to dramatize its dreadful theme. For example, there is a haunting close-up of the turning of the screws to seal the lid of Carter’s brother’s coffin. Blatantly sex is entirely divorced from any romance throughout this adventure on the dark side. In the end, Carter is killed by an assassin he wouldn’t have expected. In the concluding scene, the ocean laps at his corpse. Nothing much makes sense. It isn’t a cautionary tale. It’s meant to be a simple statement of a disillusioned take on reality.
It’s a long way from Hitchcock.
But you don’t have to Abandon Hope when you enter into this gripping savagery; you just have to see it as part of the history of culture in the awful twentieth century.
It’s finally a very human movie if not ultimately an entirely realistic one. Human perhaps mainly because it’s very angry in an angering time.
If you go there, fasten seatbelts.